The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Burke

Black Sparrow/Godine. 415 pp. Paperback, $22.95 Would you rather be a critic or a novelist? Even the most influential arbiters of taste and the finest literary scholars recognize that their work is basically secondary and ephemeral. Oh, contemporary practitioners of "theory" may swagger across the quad, wearing their Big Man on Campus sweatshirts and smiling beneficently at besotted acolytes and epigoni, but it's all show. Long ago, as slightly disdainful graduate students, they skimmed through bound issues of the Partisan or Kenyon Review and in those tattered pages glimpsed their fate: Who now reads, let alone reveres, the critical essays of William Troy or Christopher Caudwell? Who under 40 recognizes the name of Philip Rahv? Art can be long, but criticism is usually very brief indeed.

Knowing this, sooner or later, men and women of letters nearly always try their hands at fiction. And so, if you consult the various bibliographies, you will find listed Lionel Trilling's The Middle of the Journey, George Steiner's The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., Harold Bloom's The Flight to Lucifer, Edmund Wilson's I Thought of Daisy and Memoirs of Hecate County, Leslie Fiedler's Nude Croquet and Susan Sontag's highly touted but already half-forgotten novels of ideas. Some of these books possess real merit (the Trilling and Wilson, in particular), but all are kept alive, or rather half-alive, by artificial means, usually the devotion of aging friends and former students. At best, they might be called period pieces, though most seem mere oddities, by-blows, memorials to the critic's secret dream.

Such would appear to be the fate of Kenneth Burke and his fiction, which includes the novel Towards a Better Life (1932) and the collection The White Oxen and Other Stories (1924). Both books have been reprinted in the past (the latter with a few supplemental stories), but neither seems to have ever found much of a readership. As they have had no apparent influence on American literary history, their chief interest must rest on one of two possibilities: Either they are truly undervalued works that deserve our attention, or they are interesting because they were written by Kenneth Burke.

But who is Kenneth Burke? Once I would have answered: a brilliant and wide-ranging practical critic who became, like others before him, the victim of an increasingly elaborate, largely unread and often unreadable theoretical masterwork. Yet in his youth Burke could deftly unpack the "rhetoric" of Hitler's Mein Kampf or thrillingly explore the sexual symbolism and psychology of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan." Even in later years, he might produce the occasional tour de force, such as a detailed explication of the first three chapters of Genesis or an eye-opening reading of Augustine's Confessions.

But Burke's real energies were always engaged in big projects: First there was Attitudes Toward History (once described to the poet Howard Nemerov as "two mouse-gray volumes containing all knowledge"), though this itself was soon dwarfed by a trilogy: A Grammar of Motives, A Rhetoric of Motives and the never published but apparently completed A Symbolic of Motives. In my own college days, I read a lot of the early Burke -- he was praised to high heaven by Stanley Edgar Hyman in The Armed Vision, a study of contemporary critics circa 1955 -- and I dutifully worked my way through the first 40 or 50 pages of A Grammar of Motives before giving up. The theory of "dramatism" seemed to combine linguistics, Erving Goffman-like interpretations of both art and social interaction, and a whole lot that I couldn't follow.

Burke died at age 96 in 1993, clearly the dean of American literary criticism (although his lifelong friend the more journalistic Malcolm Cowley lived nearly as long). But to Burke's good fortune, literary studies began to metamorphose in his later years, and his books were reprinted, then eagerly reread, as he found himself viewed, for better or worse, as a founding father of cultural studies. Perhaps it was even more gratifying when the eminent scholar Denis Donoghue championed Towards a Better Life, naming Burke's novel as one of the three books he himself would most like to have written (the others were Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno and Robert K. Merton's winsome work of "Shandean" scholarship, On the Shoulders of Giants). As a result, Burke's novel is now again available, in a handsome trade paperback containing his complete fiction.

It opens wonderfully: "I had become convinced that, by the exercise of the intelligence, life could be made much simpler and art correspondingly complex; that any intensity of living could be subdued beneath the melancholy of letters." That grave, somewhat costive melodiousness persists for nearly 200 pages. The sentences fall like a succession of aphorisms, reminiscent of Emerson's hammer-like prose, their clauses as carefully balanced as heroic couplets, and often ending with a punch: "The apparently weak are merely schooled to other strength and may be easily enduring hardships which are intense and even still unnamed, while the man who triumphs has done so by acting in accordance with other rules, like one who would win at tennis by shooting his opponent."

Though Burke ignores plot-driven realism, a wispy story nonetheless emerges in Towards a Better Life, as our narrator, John Neal, meditates on his past in a series of declamations or epistles to a friend and rival named Anthony. While living a bohemian artistic life in New York, Neal fell in love with a woman named Florence, an actress who eventually left him for Anthony. In despair, the young intellectual then escapes to a rural small town, where he marries, or so it seems, a beautiful and kind-hearted woman named Genevieve. Shortly thereafter, he invites an itinerant acting troupe to perform at the local school and discovers Florence in their company. The couple talk, sleep together and, afterward, break for good. Neal then returns to New York but undergoes a psychological collapse, first suspecting Genevieve of infidelity, then ordering her onto the streets to earn a little money. In the end, this increasingly deluded prosateur is writing stories about himself, imagining an Alter Ego (always with capital letters) and starting to speak to a wooden dummy outside a cigar store. A coda, interspersed with suggestive jottings ("if they cannot have religion, they should have lotteries"), recapitulates an aimless bohemian life.

It's obviously not much of a novel. In truth, the only real hold on a reader's interest lies in those "filtrations of well-modulated prose." For some fairly sophisticated readers, this may be enough. Burke can sound dandyishly aesthetic -- "If one seeks new metaphors, will he not also find new women?" -- or mildly humorous, in an understated way: A promiscuous character in a play "has been refined by something more subtle than abstention." Acid social observations -- "He who commands a large salary thinks little of boring his neighbors" -- are balanced by longer pen portraits:

"I have recalled, for example, a poet whose work was exceptional; but restless because he could not write better, he remained enigmatic in his habits, coming from vague places, en route for places equally vague, seen where he was not expected and offering no explanation -- and by all this doubtless trying in some desolate way to make his verses still rarer by the rarity of his appearance."

Nothing if not introspective, John Neal is always thinking, about himself, about others, about the nature and limits of art:

"On my score I have dared quarrel with art, regretting the effectiveness of silence, and of that trickery whereby the sentence most trivial in itself is made weightiest by the assistance of plot -- as when a little girl says, 'See, the red poppy is in bloom,' saying this as an observation of no importance, merely out of pleasure with the flower's suddenness, though the reader knows from past disclosures in the text that the blooming of the poppy is to mark her own death."

From time to time, Neal's poetic sententiousness even calls to mind a similar neurotic, T.S. Eliot's Prufrock: "I have gone through the littered rooms, opened musty cupboards, and rummaged among rags with the rung of a broken chair."

Burke once wrote that had Towards a Better Life achieved a great critical or popular success, he probably would have devoted himself to fiction rather than criticism. Who wouldn't make that choice? As it stands, though, the book feels a bit like Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Paul Valery's Monsieur Teste or Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, claustrophobic works of great formal beauty. But it's significant that Rilke, Valery, Barnes and Burke each wrote only one extended work of fiction. It wasn't their metier.

What about the stories? "The White Oxen" depicts a young man's lifelong search for a peacefulness represented by some placid white bulls at the zoo. The prose here is looser, conversational, with bright turns of phrase: Mrs. Huntington "was president of the Wilkinsburg Women's Euchre Club before certain things which she found out prompted her to resign."

It is, in fact, quite an appealing story, as is the surreal, dream-like "Prince Llan," which could easily be reprinted in an anthology of literary fantasy. At one point, religious wars threaten to break out between the Pontificers -- "Let each man build a bridge; If every man builds a bridge the world will have no time for vice; Build bridges" -- and the Euonymists, who hold that salvation lies in the use of the left side, pointing out "that past civilizations decayed, and that they held the left side unlucky."

Yet other stories strike me as uninviting or simply dull, including "The Anaesthetic Vision of Herone Liddell," which is described as a kind of novella-length sequel to Towards a Better Life.

I'm glad to have finally read Kenneth Burke's imaginative prose, and I would hope it would always find an appreciative, if necessarily small, public. It is appealingly (or off-puttingly) strange, it feels suspiciously autobiographical, and it's not at all easy-going or in any way natural. In other words, it's just the sort of slightly forced fiction you'd expect from a critic. *

Michael Dirda is a critic for Book World. His e-mail address is, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on